"It's never been an advantage to be a Hispanic male in this society," Elgin Area School District U-46's outgoing Superintendent Josť Torres said Monday.
The challenges of ethnicity aside, Torres said he has built a strong resume with nearly 30 years in education, about 20 of which have been at the executive level.
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It is that experience Torres brings to his new role as president of Aurora-based Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy.
Torres came to U-46 in 2008 after serving as regional superintendent at Chicago Public Schools, and previously working in school districts in California, Baltimore and Washington, D.C.
He spoke with the Daily Herald about why he is leaving the state's second-largest school district serving 40,000 students after six years to head the state-funded boarding school focused on science, technology, engineering and mathematics education. Below are excerpts from his interview:
Q. Why IMSA? Was being part of the STEM education trend a factor?
A. "In some ways it allows me to become more singular in my focus versus sort of a generalist. I've always been interested in innovation. IMSA is considered an internationally renowned laboratory for education, and that's appealing in the sense of wanting to do some creative work for the edge of education right now. We're not constrained by many of the K-12 laws and regulations.
"IMSA's (vision) is pretty exciting ... and that is to ignite and nurture creative, ethical, scientific minds to advance the human condition. Part of my role there would be to research and be a thought leader.
"I don't think it's a step down. It's certainly a different role. ... I'm trading problems that I know for problems that I don't know."
Q. How different is it to go from serving primarily at-risk students to serving almost exclusively the best and the brightest in the state?
A. "I think my strength is leadership, change and transformation. There I will continue to do that, but I will also be able to focus on how do we create more opportunities for students who are talented, who are also at-risk.
"We've done some work here (in U-46) around gifted and talented. We've expanded opportunities for students here. (IMSA's) second charge is to promote STEM across the state in all districts that I will also be working on.
"Diversity and talent ... that is something that we've struggled (with) here and something that they have struggled with there. We've got to figure out how to ensure that gifted and talented students, no matter what their ZIP code, have the access to an environment like IMSA."
Q. The U-46 school board recently rejected a proposal for an Elgin charter elementary school focused on math and science. Is that an area the district needs to expand programming?
A. "We've expanded STEM in U-46. We've put Project Lead The Way programs in every middle school and every high school in the last six years. We've created STEM camps for girls.
"I've always said that I'm not against charter schools. If I was in a different district, I would say maybe perhaps that would be an approach I would use. We're doing quite a bit in that arena.
"When you look at the resources, what we could do in 40 elementary schools versus what we could do with one school, in my judgment that's what I did."
Q. Are you leaving U-46 in better shape than when you came?
A. "In 2008, that first year I came in as an instructional superintendent ... I had to learn a lot. In the first year, we went quickly from a $17 million deficit to an almost $40 million deficit.
"On March 15, 2009, the school board made a tough decision to reduce in force all first-year, second-year, third-year and fourth-year teachers -- 760 teachers plus 300 other people. We came out of that and today we have a $50 million surplus.
"From an economic perspective, I think the district is in much better shape. From an Advanced Placement and gifted program (perspective), we are in much better shape with more students having access, taking exams and passing exams.
"We had a lawsuit that I inherited that is now settled, and we are stronger by being prudent and wise in responding to it. We've always wanted to expand some of the gifted programs and we used the opportunity of the lawsuit to decide we are going to do it now.
"We are the leading district across the nation in dual language education. Across the state, bar none, this is the district that has the most commitment to dual language education, where students don't have to lose a language to learn a language."